Q&A: Max Paterson – “We believe that expert human lawyers will always be at the centre of legal practice.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,Strategy & Leadership,Technology] August 30, 2017

In this Q&A, Settify principal and CEO Max Paterson underlines the importance of embracing artificial intelligence, why ‘cyborg lawyers’ should not threaten the human element of law, and how staying engaged in theatre keeps him grounded and happy.

You had a successful law career at major firms before you decided to set up Settify, an innovative new family law firm. What motivated you to do your own thing?

“I loved practising at Lander & Rogers Lawyers and still hold the firm in very high regard. It’s a great place to practice. I have always been passionate, however, about change, innovation and the possibility of doing things better. I think we stand at an exciting juncture as a profession, where radical change is possible and desirable. I’m dedicated to ushering in a wave of innovation that will improve the professional lives of lawyers, freeing us from drudgery. Efficiencies should also allow us to reduce costs to clients, and allow us to deliver constantly improving service. I’m excited about what the future may hold and I want to be part of shaping it for the better.”

The name Settify … what does it mean?

“It’s a made-up word. The suffix ‘-ify’ indicates that we are, at our core, a technology company – think Spotify, Shopify etcetera. The ‘set’ evokes getting things set, or sorted and settling.”

Your firm has embraced artificial intelligence, using questionnaires and algorithms to give early advice to divorcing clients and later drafting all court documents. How difficult was it to develop a workable software-driven system?

“Software is like law. To give the appearance of simplicity, you need to put in a huge amount of sophistication behind the scenes. People often say that our system is clean, simple and easy to use. That’s because we spent months meticulously crafting the universe of possibilities that our system can lead a client through. My co-founder Athol Birtley is the smartest person I know, and I know a lot of smart people. Apart from having a first-class legal mind, he is an amazing ‘full stack’ software developer. I occasionally help with ‘ignorant expert’ suggestions, but our clean, aesthetic, user-friendly experience, security and reliability is essentially due to his prodigious talent.”

What are clients saying about the service, whether it is positives or things they would like to have tweaked?

“Family law clients have said that using Settify improved their overall impression of their lawyers. They understand that lawyer time is expensive, and they truly value firms which make the effort to improve efficiency, make things easier and save cost. Some tell us that using Settify took a weight off their shoulders because they were able to make a start on things. It also helps them understand their position, learn about what will be relevant and prepare for their first interview. Lawyers tell us they love receiving the short, punchy summary of their new client’s matter. It helps them prepare for conferences and allows them to spend time on valuable things, like building rapport, providing advice and canvassing options. We build bespoke versions of our system for each firm that we work with, so each firm has a system that is constantly evolving to more neatly and seamlessly fit into their practice.”

We understand that many firms are adopting the technology. Can you update us on the uptake and your expectations for the system?

Since February, Settify has been adopted by just over 40 firms around Australia. We have partnered with the top practices in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra. Practices which still send out word documents or PDFs expecting clients to fill them out need to look at themselves. Lawyers who charge clients hundreds per hour as they sit in conference having dates of birth and spellings of middle names dictated to them should start thinking about whether that is appropriate in 2017. We have great relationships with our partners and intend to continually work with them to bring new waves of innovation to family law. We are also interested in expanding our system into new areas of law and into overseas markets.”

The notion of building technology solutions that a firm such as Settify can on-sell to other firms is quickly gaining ground. What repercussions does this have for tech providers and mainstream laws firms?

“We have spoken to a lot of firms about their tech providers. Some legal tech providers are overwhelmingly seen as fat, lazy, bloated peddlers of legacy systems, deployed with extortionate business models. We regularly hear from firm leaders who think that dealing with their technology providers is akin to pulling teeth. I think those providers have plenty to fear. Practising lawyers have expert insight into the true pain points and problems in practice. Technology and innovation should always be solving a problem. If lawyers can convert their gripes about practice into workable solutions, then there are huge opportunities available to them. That said, law firms should remain focussed primarily on what they do best – delivering legal services. We love to bring our tech expertise, design thinking and lean methodology to projects and partnerships with law firms, and we’ll be delivering some really exciting new things over the next year or so.”

What other tech innovations do you see on the radar for firms in the next few years?

“We are currently looking at discovery and disclosure in family law. We think that discovery is currently a Wild West of emails, USBs, paper dumps, and Dropbox links. Indexing and record-keeping is a nightmare. We’re currently putting together a ‘coalition of the willing’ dedicated to solving that problem and gaining a share in the solution that we deliver together. We’d love to hear from others who have identified that problem and want to be part of the solution.”

In a recent article you commented that the future of the legal profession rests with cyborg lawyers and that firms which ignore the changes are set to fail. How do you see these cyborg lawyers “practising”?

“My use of the term ‘cyborg lawyers’ was intended to emphasise the human. It’s a rebuttal to the starry-eyed chatter about ‘robot lawyers taking over’. We believe that expert human lawyers will always be at the centre of legal practice. The human relationship with clients will always be paramount. A ‘cyborg’ is a person whose abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements.

“In that sense, we think that good lawyers of the future will be enhanced and extended by technology, automation and data. Lawyers who think their black-letter expertise or years of experience will allow them to shun technology will soon be competing in the market with super-enhanced ‘cyborg lawyers’ whose power, efficiency and reach will dramatically outstrip traditionalists.”

Our main readership is managing partners and others with an interest in management trends. As CEO, do you have a management philosophy that drives your leadership of the firm?

“Have a vision, and then get it done.”

We understand Settify wants to expand into the United Kingdom market. What are the plans?

“We see growth in three areas. The first is to invest in our existing partnerships by going deeper into the family law space. The second is to apply our technology and know-how into areas like wills, employment and personal injury. The third is moving into new geographies. I plan to spend significant time in the UK in 2018 establishing our technology in that market. We are also looking at other common law jurisdictions.”

Outside of your regular day job, you launched BottledSnail Productions Inc, a theatre company for the legal industry. What led to that enterprise and how did it help you in terms of achieving work-life balance? 

“I have been involved in theatre since childhood, initially as an actor and then as a theatre director. I have learned of myself that if I don’t make theatre for a while then I get sad. Upon entering the profession, I realised that there were huge seams of creative and artistic talent among lawyers and, on the other hand, our intricate social connectivity makes it possible to pull great crowds. I launched The Law Revue in the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 2013. We received rave reviews and sold out the Capital Theatre, and the following year we sold out the Forum. I led the company for a couple of years before passing the baton to more talented and visionary young lawyers than myself who have brought it to new heights.”